Napa Cab – forget everything you think you know
Balanced, elegant, finesse, graceful… these are the recurring themes in my tasting notes. No, I’m not in Burgundy, I’m not even writing about Pinot Noir. These are all notes for Cabernet Sauvignon. Californian Cabernet Sauvignon. Forget what you think you already know and start all over again (if you’re a 90’s guitar-band fan you’ll get the Mega City Four reference!)
I’ve never made any secret of my preference for Pinot over any other grape on the planet but I am never averse to glass of quality Cabernet Sauvignon, from anywhere in the wine world. I’ve tasted great Cabs from Bordeaux, Tuscany, Australia and South Africa but until now I haven’t found the Cabs of California so appetising. The three things I look for in wine are concentration, balance and elegance; my experience of Napa Cab has been concentration, concentration, concentration. Until now. Over the past week I have been blown away by the quality and restraint on offer in this larger than life state; the wines have ticked all of my boxes and I am a convert.
A few weeks ago Tim Atkin spewed out one of his “controversial” claims on Twitter, stating that California was the most over-priced region in the wine world; well Mr Atkin, get yourself over here and try the bounty, compared to Tuscany and Bordeaux, I think it’s a great bet.
Some of my highlights… and there are many!
I have also included some notes I made on wines other than Cab Sav as the principles of less is more seem to be prevalent across the board in Napa (all prices are direct from winery):
We started in grand style with a tasting at Inglenook, one of the most famous names in Napa, now 100% in the hands of Frances Ford Coppola. The movie memorabilia has now been moved Coppola’s other location in Sonoma (although there is still an Oscar and Golden Globe on display!) so Inglenook can concentrate 100% on the wines. Having said that, the buildings and grounds at Inglenook are worth a look by themselves.
Inglenook Blancaneaux 2012, Rutherford ($65)
A white Rhone blend of 50% Marsanne, 25% Roussane, 25% Viognier that spends 8 months sur lie in stainless steel. I’m never a big of fan of Rhone whites but the Blancaneaux is all apples and white flowers on the nose and has a very fresh palate with good acidity (which I often find missing in wines of this style) and a creamy finish from the time on lees. A very pleasant surprise. 91 points
Inglenook Cask Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, Napa Valley ($75)
95% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5% Cabernet Franc; 18 months in French and American oak, 35% new. Hugely concentrated nose of blackcurrant and just a hint of green herb, partly from youth, partly from the Cab Franc. The attack is a little bit thin in texture but the wine unravels beautifully in fruity tones, a touch of warm spice and just a hint of green pepper. The wine just needs a few years to come together. 91+ points
Edizione Pennino Zinfandel 2011, Rutherford ($48)
The wine also contains a small proportion of Petit Sirah and is aged for 18 months in new and old French and American oak. Edizione Pennino Zinfandel pays tribute to Francis Ford Coppola’s maternal grandfather, Francesco Pennino. Massive nose of blackberry and blueberry and a lovely whaft of smoke. Big concentration of black fruit on the palate then the delightful acidity cleanses the palate and clears the way for cherry and raspberry as well as the smoky finish. The tannins are smooth and velvety; on of the best Zins I’ve tasted. 93 points
Inglenook Rubicon 2010, Rutherford ($205)
One of Napa’s true icon wines, a blend of 85% Cabernet Sauvignon and the remainder of Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Merlot. 20 months ageing in new French oak. Such a pure fruit nose with masses of black fruit and classy, yet understated oak – vanilla, cigar and clove. The texture coats every millimetre of the mouth with ripe and concentrated black fruit, followed by layer upon layer of flavour; red fruit, smoke and a multitude of spices and the length is truly phenomenal. I was expecting a super-extracted fruit bomb but what I’m getting is pure elegance and sheer pleasure. Brilliant, brilliant… I would love the chance to try this again in 10 years time. 96+ points
(amazingly we were offered a re-fill – I was driving but The Fish leapt at the chance… I was gutted to say the least!)
Next up was family owned and run Cakebread Cellars, about whom I read lots of great things while doing some pre-holiday research. The winery produced it’s first vintage in 1973 and is now run by the second generation of the Cakebread family.
Cakebread Cellars Chardonnay Reserve 2012, Carneros ($55)
The 2012 was released to the public on the day we visited the winery and the staff in the Reserve room enjoyed their first taste of the new vintage in our company! This is a pure and precise Chardaonnay with a ton of fruit, mainly crisp golden delicious apple and lemon. There is a hint of spice and the creaminess of lemon cud on the finish but this is clean, crunchy and very classy. 92 points
Cakebread Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, Napa Valley ($85)
75% Cabernet Sauvignon, 13% Merlot, 8% Cabernet Franc, 3% Petit Verdot, spends 18 months in barrel, 53% of which is new. There’s plenty of fruit and just a hint of leather on the nose – very inviting indeed. The fruit on the palate are ripe plums and blackberries; great concentration with a smoky, cedar finish and a so a touch of violet. A touch warm perhaps but very satisfying. 92 points
Cakebread Cellars Benchland Select Cabernet Sauvignon 2008, Napa Valley ($130)
100% Cabernet Sauvignon (60% Rutherford, 40% Oakville), 22 months in French oak, 48% new. Really fruit driven nose with blackcurrant, blackberry, plum and even hints of refreshing red fruit – like an autumn basket of fruit – all wrapped up in a cloak of classy baking spice and a touch of smoke. The fruit on the palate has huge concentration but retains a great elegance, never appearing jammy. The body is robust with delightful fine, dusty tannins that carries the long, slightly savoury finish. Very good wine with a good few years ahead of it. 93+ points
Cakebread Cellars Dancing Bear Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Howell Mountain ($115)
93% Cabernet Sauvignon, 6% Cabernet Franc, 1% Merlot (apparently there isn’t much Merlot left on Howell Mountain as the bears love it so much!); 19 months in French oak, 39% new. A spicy nose with coffee and chocolate hitting the nostrils before the concentrated dark fruit. The palate is like a warm autumnal hug of concentrated fruit and spice. Lovely if a touch clipped on the finish. 92 points
Our third visit of day 1 in Napa was Stagg’s Leap but I’ll be covering that off in another post – watch this space, it was spectacular!
We started our second day at Heitz, which was started back in 1961 by Joe and Alice Heitz. Today the operation is still run by the family to the same exacting and sympathetic standards and principles.
Heitz Wine Cellars Chardonnay 2013, Napa Valley ($25)
Very fresh and bright nose of apples, a touch of rich peach and just a hit of a buttery note – the wine doesn’t go through malo so the flavours and texture all comes from the aging is used aged oak and the time it spends on the lees. The palate is crisp and clean with fresh apples, that bit of peachy ripeness and a tense minerality. This was another bottle only released this week, given 12 months or so it will be very satisfying. 92+ points
Heitz Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, Napa Valley ($49)
100% Cabernet Sauvignon, aged for 3 years before release, 1 year in American oak tanks, 2 years in new French Limousin oak. The most blackcurrant focused wine I have come across yet in Napa – very fruit focused with hints of dried herbs. The palate is beautifully balanced with bright fruit, acidity and fine tannin. 92 points
Heitz Wine Cellars Trailside Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, Rutherford ($85)
100% Cabernet Sauvignon, aged for 3 ½ years before release, 1 year in American oak tanks, 2 ½ years in new French Limousin oak. As well as blackcurrant and redcurrant fruit there’s a whole host of secondary flavours coming through. Beautiful balance and poise with classy cedar and Asian spice gliding across the palate. The texture is silky smooth and the fresh acidity would put the wine closer to 6 than 12 years old. Wonderful. 94 points
Heitz Wine Cellars Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 1998, Oakville ($110)
100% Cabernet Sauvignon, aged for 3 ½ years before release, 1 year in American oak tanks, 2 ½ years in new French Limousin oak. Martha’s vineyars is the site that has made Heitz a famous name in the wine worls and it was an honour to try one of the wines. At 16 years old the nose is earthy and spicy, with a touch of mint supporting the slightly drying fruit. The weight and balance on the palate is almost ethereal and there is still enough acidity to make this a very enjoyable glass of wine. If you have any, drink it up! 92 points
There was also a very zippy, Loire-like Sauvignon Blanc and a delicious “port” wine but I can’t find my notes so sorry about that.
Next stop was Beringer vineyards in St Helena. Founded in 1875, Beringer Vineyards is the oldest continuously operating winery in the Napa Valley, and is listed in the National Register of Historical Places and as a California Historical Landmark. These days it is owned by Treasury Wine Estates and they have spent money on making the grounds a tourist’s dream. Fortunately the wines stand up on their own right and the tasting was a very enjoyable one.
We started the tasting with 2 very different but very delicious Chardonnays:
Beringer Luminus Chardonay 2012, Napa Valley ($35)
Very crisp and fresh with bright citrus with a real acidic bite. This is a very modern Californian take on Chardonnay and has real tension and nerve – like a fine Chablis. There is a deliciously buttery finish (the wine goes through 35% malolactic fermentation). 92 points
Beringer Private Reserve Chardonnay 2012, Napa Valley ($44)
After the Luminus I was expecting this one to be a real butter-bomb… but wait… the attack is all peaches and apples with just a gentle hint of buttered toast and just a delightful nuance of toasted nut. This is really enjoyable, fresh and beautifully balanced. 92 points
Beringer Home Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, St Helena ($100)
Blackcurrants, red currants and blackberries provide great concentration and lots of fruit purity to the initial smell and taste of the wine. The tannins are big and need some time to melt – this is still a baby and the lashings of acidity will provide this delicious fruit-laden (not fruit bomb!) number with years of life. 92+ points
Beringer Steinhauer Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon 2005, Howell Mountain ($140)
If this is anything to go by then it will certainly be worth waiting for the Home Vineyard to mature. This has so much elegance and poise with a delicious combination of blackcurrants, blackberries and minerality with background flourishes of vanilla and Chinese five-spice. The tannins are silky and the minerality cooling – I actually thought I was drinking a Leoville Barton for a while! 94 points
Beringer Private Reserve cabernet Sauvignon 2009, Napa Valley ($160)
Like many Napa winemakers, the top of the range “Private Reserve” is made from the best barrels across the different vineyards in great years. The 2009 is still a youngster but I love the wild nature of the nose – blackcurrants, blackberries jump out of a wild autumnal hedgerow; it actually has the “garrigue” character you expect from quality wines from the Southern Rhone. There are big tannins upfront but these are cut though with rapier-like acidity that will preserve this baby for years to come. 93+ points
And then there was Corison. Wow! Cathy Corison is Napa’s First Lady and has been making wines since the 1970’s, when she would sell them from the boot of a battered old Saab. Cathy’s philosophy has always been to make complex but elegant wines; she refused to buckle under the pressure of “big wine” in the previous decades and now everyone is trying to make wines the way Cathy always has. Probably the highlight of the trip so far was the chance to talk to her about this for ten minutes and then get my photo taken with her… a true meet your heroes moment!
The wines were also extraordinary.
Corazon Rosé 2013, Napa Valley ($28)
100% Cabernet Sauvignon Pale, immediately “bled” as the Cabernet Sauvignon grapes were crushed for the red wine, fermented in small French and aged sur lie for 6 months. The colour is such a pale pink and has so much crisp red apple fruit you would probably guess it was a white wine if it was served in a dark glass. So much freshness and zing – one of the best rosé wines I’ve come across. 92 points
Corison Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 05 ($100)
Such a pure nose of blackcurrant and cassis with great concentration of sweet fruit on the attack. But the fruit stays with you and carries the layers of Asian spice to an incredibly long finish. So stylish. 93 points
Corison Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 ($95)
More concentrated fruit but this time it’s a bit deeper with hints of blueberries as well as blackcurrants. The fruit is supported by swathes of cedar and smoke – not quite as together as the 2005 but still very enjoyable. 92 points
Corison Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 ($95)
The fruit is very bright and for the first time I get a hint of redcurrant underneath the blackcurrant and blackberry spine. There is a touch of greenness on the palate but this is more to do with youth and just needs some time. The tannins are big upfront but classy and there is plenty of acidity to lave this one alne for a few more years. Will be a belter. 93+ points
Corison Kronos Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 ($145)
The concentration of fruit on the nose is spectacular; from blackcurrant and blackberry to raspberry and red cherry, you could just keep naming fruit after fruit and it is in there somewhere. The palate is super smooth and lays the way for dark spices a touch of liquorice and even a hint of worn leather. The finish goes on forever and the balance is incredible. I said I was looking for concentrating, balance and elegance; this ticks all of the boxes. 96 points
Corison Kronos Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 1998 ($175)
1998 was considered a bad vintage in Napa – one of Cathy’s strengths is her ability to make great wines in difficult vintages – buy the winemaker not the vintage! The 1998 is still fresh with plenty of fleshy black fruit, but the dried fruit tones are now also settling in along with notes of cedar, earth and leather, still plenty of time ahead. 94 points
So there you go. Well done if you got this far but the tastings were spectacular and I need to find some room (and some cash!) to get a few of these babies into my collection; it will be incomplete without these gems.